No matter how you dress it….

Published 11:16 am Monday, April 3, 2017

I once spent a summer working summer-stock theater in Kentucky back in the seventies, and I remember the day of the “great condiment debate”.

While gathered for lunch, a group of us were asked what we wanted on our bologna sandwiches. Interestingly, half said mayonnaise, and half said mustard.

What was more interesting was that those of us from south of the Mason-Dixon line were the ones who called for mayo – the ‘Yankees’ took the spicy yellow stuff.

What brings this up? White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s remark he made earlier this week about President Trump’s possible choice for lunch, and it got me to thinking.

Spicer noted, “If the President puts Russian dressing on his salad tonight, then somehow that’s a Russian connection.”

Actually, I hope Mr. Trump opts for Thousand Island.

You see, according to the Portland, Maine Press-Herald newspaper, Russian was once the go-to condiment in a corned beef sandwich, but an examination of menus across the country in the 21st century shows that Russian dressing has all but disappeared from America’s national consciousness. It’s also largely disappeared from most of your supermarket and sandwich chains.

The two condiments aren’t interchangeable either. Your typical Russian dressing recipe calls for mayonnaise, chili sauce or ketchup, relish, horseradish, paprika and other seasonings. This give the topping a bite, making it considerably spicier and less sweet than Thousand Island, with its hard-boiled egg, lemon or orange juice, cream, and sweet pickle relish or olives.

I always thought the latter was the “special sauce” in double-meat hamburgers served at a certain fast-food establishment, but for years folks at another burger joint told me I was wrong.

And here’s something else I bet you didn’t know: Russian dressing was actually created – get ready – right here in the good ol’ USA.

Yep, its heritage is none other than red-white-and-blue, an American-made concoction invented by James E. Colburn of Nashua, New Hampshire. Exactly why he called it “Russian” is not exactly known: Some say it was because he originally made it with black caviar – that’s sturgeon roe, or fish eggs, for those of you who don’t speak herring. Others say it’s because the dressing was designed to top a Russian-inspired tossed salad.

According to Colburn’s biography, looked up by the Press-Herald, Colburn pulled a “chicken coup”, a la KFC’s Col. Harlan Sanders, and did not name his ingredients. Maybe he used 11, maybe he didn’t. Whatever the procedure, soon Colburn was selling the dressing to retailers and hotels across the country, earning “wealth on which he was enabled to retire.” And he did just that, in 1924, and died three years later.

Now Thousand Island dressing, used on greens from mustard to lettuce, traces its roots beyond our borders: to the region between northern New York state and southern Ontario, Canada. While some American hotel chefs claimed to be the originators, there is evidence that the wife of a fishing guide in upstate New York was the first to make the dressing in the early 1900s. It quickly became a popular offering at inns and hotels in that region of the Empire State known for its many lakes and – get ready! – Thousand Islands. I don’t know how long those inventors lived, or how much “green” they made.

Another reason I’m hoping Mr. Trump uses the Thousand Island: it’s sweeter. And don’t you think after the first nine weeks he’s had, he could use a little sweetness?

After Spicer’s remarks a “fake” Trump Twitter account re-tweeted that the ‘Trump Sandwich’ is: white bread, full of baloney, with American cheese and Russian dressing; and don’t forget the very small pickle served on the side.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.